The neo-pop divas of the late 20th century may have turned up the glamour, and a few even introduced formidable technical prowess, epitomized by Mariah Carey's seemingly helium-induced falsetto (the bane of canine fans everywhere) or Celine Dion's breast-beating, stentorian climaxes. Yet only a few verses from an earlier, charter member of the first-name-only club provides instant perspective: when Ella opened her mouth, that perfectly pitched, luminous voice could leap octaves without breaking a sweat, its tonal purity and immaculate phrasing creating that illusion of "effortlessness" achieved only through true artistry.
Writer-director Charlotte Zwerin performs similar sleight of hand with this beautifully composed documentary, originally produced for public television's American Masters series. Created nearly four years after Ella Fitzgerald's death, Zwerin's film uses the lush voice and superb repertoire of "the First Lady of Song" to provide continuity while assembling convincing, if composite, narrative quotes gleaned from various interviews. The latter are noteworthy given the singer's lifelong modesty and insistence on privacy. Archival footage of early performances, as well as later television appearances, capture Ella's pilgrimage from Depression-era New York, through her discovery at the Apollo Theater and subsequent emergence as a swing vocalist and on to her long career as a matchless pop and jazz stylist.
Tony Bennett is a sympathetic narrator, while added affection and insight are provided through interviews with some of the myriad jazz titans that accompanied her. Yet, ultimately, it's Ella's music, generously featured throughout, that proves most eloquent. As one of her definitive Gershwin favorites put it, "'Swonderful." --Sam Sutherland
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